Noel Rappin Writes Here

The Big Book Post for 2023

Posted on April 1, 2024

This is late even by my absurd standards for having this post be late.

I have a good excuse – I got on to TikTok.

And not that I wasted a bunch of time on TikTok, but that I started to see a lot of BookTok videos, where a lot of very earnest people would talk about their 5-star-books for November or whatever.

And I thought, “Do I sound like that?” And it kind of froze me, honestly.

And then I realized “Yes, I probably do, and that’s okay?” I mostly write this for future-me anyway… Hi, future me!

A couple of changes this year

  • Rather than rank the books, they are grouped, more or less by star ratings. Inside each group, the books are alphabetical by title. Don’t take the ratings too seriously.
  • Some of the books in the bottom group are just there because I wanted to write about them.
  • Mostly the idea here is to give you a sense of what the book is and what’s good about it so that you know if it might be for you..

So, here goes… we’ve got a ridiculous number of books this year, and I really should start splitting this up and doing it more often.

I liked these books, maybe you will too? (Okay, fine… 3.75 out of 5, which means nothing)

Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton

Elevator Pitch: Sequel to Micky7, mainstream SF in a very Scalzi mode

Do The Math: Micky7 + Micky1, obviously

When last we left Micky7, he – spoilers for Micky7 – had secured both his safety and the colony’s safety by basically tricking both the colony and the alien species about the exact location of an antimatter bomb and he had removed himself from his job as person who dies over and over again in the colony.

That was an unstable solution at best, and in this book Micky is asked to retrieve the bomb, forcing him into a new set of schemes to be able to retrieve the bomb and protect the aliens and the colony.

I remember this as being fun, extending the aliens in interesting ways, but the ending of the first book kind of took away Micky’s unique perspective a bit and I’m not sure this book really replaced it.

Begin Again by Emma Lord

Elevator Pitch: YA (I guess technically NA since it takes place in college) rom-com by way of self-improvement book

I don’t actually read a lot of YA. But I do have a few authors who I think are consistently good, and Emma Lord has been one of them.

Our hero is Andie, and when we meet her, she’s finally starting at her dream college mid-year after transferring from a community college, only to find that her long-distance boyfriend has transferred out without telling her. Oops. She has an immediate case of My High School Tricks Don’t Work Here. Will she reinvent herself and find her passion? Will she find love with the kind of annoying RA? I mean, yes and yes, but it’s still fun.

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Recommended If You Like: “Dark academia” whatever that means, maps.

This is where I get myself in trouble – this was one of the first books I read in 2023 and therefore it’s been like 15 months since I read it as I write this.

It’s a contemporary fantasy where the magic system is based on maps, specifically the ability to cause a map’s inaccuracies to manifest in the real world. I liked it? I remember liking it.

Charlotte Illes Is Not A Detective by Katie Siegel

Elevator Pitch: I’m always in on a story about a grown-up child detective

Do The Math: Encyclopedia Brown + 15 years

Our title character is Charlotte Illes, who got some press as a teenager as a Kid Detective – she had real skills, but was also kind of turned into a curiosity by bored local press people. Eventually, she got to high school, put away childish things and tried to live her life. It’s not going great. Her friends try to fake a mystery to give her something fun to do, but it all goes a little sideways when one of their co-workers is murdered. Oops.

I really love the idea of grown up kid detectives (I once toyed with the idea of writing something about 30-something Leroy Brown, Professor), and this book does a pretty good job with it. It’s also pretty light, for a murder mystery.

Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood

Elevator Pitch: YA romcom involving lots of chess. You may have picked that up from the title…

The Award For: Amazon says it’s a best-seller for “Teen & Young Adult Sports Fiction eBooks”, which, sure.. why not?

Look, I do read a lot of romcoms, a lot of which don’t make these lists, in part because I don’t think I have anything interesting to say.

Hazelwood is a few novels into her career, and until this book all her previous books had some similarities – female lead is a quirky person in a STEM career, falls in to the orbit of a male lead who has some authority over her job and is physically much larger than she is. She dislikes him usually based on a misunderstanding, but eventually they fall for each other despite his arrogance. It’s a solid formula, solidly executed. I’ve read them all.

So, naturally, I was curious how this would adapt to a YA, and I was happy to see that the answer was “she kind of wrote a different book and kind of didn’t and it still works”.

Our viewpoint character is Mallory, she’s like 20 years old. He’s Nolan, the young, hot, (still arrogant) world chess champion. She’s a former prodigy who quit chess as a teenager for Reasons. She is coaxed into competing in a charity tournament where she beats him, not even really knowing who he is. From there, she’s drawn back into the chess world, and we get kind of a cross between a Sports Movie, and a rivals to lovers romcom.

I found it mostly charming. She handles the chess interestingly – rather than get bogged down in describing actual chess games, we mostly get the chess filtered through Mallory talking about the game being beautiful or exciting or whatever, and it mostly works even as I suspect some of the games are impossible as written.

Fourth Wing / Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarrow

Elevator Pitch: Dragons, and enemies to lovers, and lots of lore, and probably more sex than you are expecting

Recommended If You Like: It’s a That Book – see below, you probably already know if this is for you…

As I mentioned, I wound up on BookTok this year, and for a while that meant I was continually watching people argue about Fourth Wing.

Fourth Wing is a particularly good example of… I’ve been struggling to coin a word here, right now I’m just calling it That Book.

A That Book is:

  • Objectively flawed, even many people who like it will admit it (Fourth Wing is way too long, very repetitive, the world building is a little wonky, and the nominally medieval dragon riders all kind of talk like 2020s college students).
  • But yet That Book is unusually good at hitting a very emotionally resonant trope very strongly and very purely – in this case, both an enemies to lovers romance, and a chosen one story (maybe two chosen one stories). There’s also often very detailed world building.
  • The book is initially very successful with its core audience, who really respond to the emotional notes.
  • As the book becomes more popular, it inevitably grows out of its audience and spreads to people who are not the core audience.
  • Those people are less inclined to resonate with the emotions and wonder what the fuss is about when they are not just loudly hating it
  • The two groups snipe at each other on the internet.
  • Repeat

That’s Fourth Wing. It’s also Twilight. And Hunger Games. And probably Divergent. (I’d say there’s a common thread there, and there is, but it’s also probably Harry Potter, and hell, Fifty Shades). (I have not read all of those books).

What did I think? I thought it was engaging except when it was repeating character beats. I thought the world building didn’t stand to be looked at too closely. But it’s hard not to respond to dragon riders, and the dragon parts of the book are really fun. I’m not sure I’m recommending it exactly, but it’s interesting as a thing in the world.

Galactic Cold War Series by Dan Moren

Elevator Pitch: It’s basically James Bond in Space. You already know if you are in or out

This is another series I ate up pretty quickly this year. One thing it taught me is that you can absolutely have something set in the arbitrary future and still kind of use Midcentury Modern as the aesthetic if you are willing to commit to the bit.

Our heroes are a special spy team on the good side of a Galactic Cold War, but they are secretly basically trying to keep peace as much as they are trying to benefit their side. If you like spy/heist/con stories where the point is that the heroes are very good at their jobs, you’ll like this.

Going Infinite by Michael Lewis

Elevator Pitch: It’s Michael Lewis writing about FTX… How could it go wrong (it goes wrong)

Look, this isn’t a bad book. Really. It got a lot of bad reviews from people who wish Lewis had written a different book. On its own terms, it does what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do turns out to be so modest relative to what it could have done… It’s one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. You probably should read it.

I’ve been a big Michael Lewis fan for basically as long as there have been Michael Lewis fans, and I wasn’t the only one who was eager to see what would result when we all learned that Lewis had been embedded with Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX when everything collapsed.

To give the book some credit, the parts that are actually about Bankman-Fried are really interesting.


  • Lewis chooses not to really explain how cryptocurrency works, and in general, kind of under explains FTX’s finances in general
  • I think the generous term for Lewis is that he’s optimistic about FTX, even after the fall, the less generous term would be credulous. Basically it felt like he came in to write one of his books that’s a profile of a person, not an event, and didn’t really change course once the event proved to be more consequential and the person turned out to be more fraudulent. (Lewis also seems to think that FTX got railroaded a bit)

Anyway, for a more… skeptical take on the crypto world, try Number Go Up by Zeke Faux

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Elevator Pitch: YA/NA about a girl who is named the sole heir to a billionaire for no apparent reason

Do The Math: Westing Game / millionaire * billionaire - adult supervision

Speaking of That Book – You could argue that Inheritance Games is a That Book, with the done well tropes being Chosen One and Puzzle Box.

I have two things to say about this series

  • It is absurd. It’s fractally absurd. The premise is absurd, the setting is absurd, the characters absurd, the plots and resolutions are… you get the idea.

  • I ate them up like candy. Really, the first three books were out when I started the series and I think I read them in a week.

Not sure what that says except that “Westing Game without Adult Supervision if Every Character Was Basically Turtle” is kind of hard for me to resist – if you’re in on that description, you’ll probably have fun.

The Mountain In The Sea by Ray Nayler

Elevator Pitch: Near-Future SF about sentient octopi and AI androids and climate dystopia

The Award For: 2023 Nebula Nominee

This was a book that I was a little out of sync with – a lot of people I trust really loved it, I’d say I admired it more than loved it.

The main action here takes place in the not-to-distant future on a remote island where it seems we’ve discovered a species of octopus that is using language. The research team features the world’s only sentient AI android, and there are some corporate shenanigans happening in the background.

There’s a lot of AI in the book – we have one thread of a person crewing a fishing ship run by AI, we have the android, even the octopi are at least an alien intelligence. The interactions with the octopi are really interesting, the rest of it – felt a little slow. There’s a late reveal about the timing of one thread of the book that I thought was awkwardly done.

Still, the SF parts of the book are unusual and strong.

Once More With Feeling by Elissa Sussman

Elevator Pitch: What if your top pop girl and her boy band boyfriend get a second chance ten years later?

Recommended If You Like: Theater Kid Energy, Second chance rom-coms

Not the musical episode of Buffy, alas, but a rom-com…

Look, I was pretty much in on this with the premise – she’s a one-time pop-star down on her luck after she was blamed for breaking up with her boy-band boyfriend. Ten years later, that boyfriend wants her to star in his broadway musical. This has some nice Theater Kid energy and one or two great scenes, I’ll take it.

The Road To Roswell by Connie Willis

Elevator Pitch: Connie Willis writing a very Connie Willis story about Aliens

Do The Math: Bellwether + ET

Recommended If You Like: Connie Willis. This is kind of a love/like book – if you love Connie Willis, you will like this book

The thing I wanted to say about this – I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading interviews with Connie Willis in the early 2000s where she says she shelved a first-contact comedy because it kind of made fun of American culture, and she thought that Americans in, like 2003 might not be receptive to even gentle ribbing. Like I said, I can’t find it, so I may be misremembering.

Anyway, this is presumably either that book, or a descendent of that book (not to be confused with a That Book). (An argument in favor of the former is that some of the tech/social issues seem just a tiny bit outdated).

It’s very Connie Willis in that first contact with an alien being mediated by Western Movies seems like very very Connie Willis. It’s light but fun but light but fun.

Spear by Nicola Griffith

Elevator Pitch: What if King Arthur, but more realistic, but still a fantasy, and not totally depressing

The Award For: 2023 Nebula Nominee for Best Novel

I suppose it was inevitable that Nicola Griffith would take a swing at an Arthur story. Though I think the best parts of this are the parts Griffith pulls from other contemporary fairy stories, rather than from the Arthur myths itself.

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

Elevator Pitch: Man inherits his relative’s supervillain business; breezy dialog ensues

Recommended If You Like: The Cover – the cover is excellent

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee

I was a little surprised that this book seemed to get more mainstream play that Scalzi’s last few books (maybe I’m just over indexing on NPR’s Linda Holmes’ review). It’s fun, it’s fine, there’s some clever stuff here, but it’s slight, and I liked Kaiju Preservation Society more.

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

This is as good a place as any to comment on the 2023 Chengdu Hugo Award mess, which has unfolded in two separate waves (at least)

  • Wave one, where we learned that Kuang’s novel Babel (a top ten pick last year) was left off the ballot for Reasons that are definitely not because anybody thought the Chinese government would be mad.
  • Wave two, where we learned that the organizers throw out hundreds if not thousands of nomination ballots for Chinese-language works for Reasons that are unspecified except that you can probably guess.

None of which is Kuang’s fault (or Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher, we’ll get to her). Kuang has been admirably silent about the whole thing. But it’s a total mess.

Yellowface, is a non-SF book about a white woman who comes into possession of her Asian friend’s manuscript after her friend dies suddenly and decides to pass it off as her own. I found it a little hard going at times – the main character isn’t exactly likable, and it’s easy to forget that she’s kind of an unreliable narrator..

Books that I like-liked (so, 4.0 out of 5, again, it means nothing)

Biography of X by Catherine Lacey

Elevator Pitch: I don’t even know where to begin…

Recommended If You Like: Not really understanding what’s going on; fun alternate history shenanigans;

This is, I guess, technically an alternate history novel although it doesn’t really come out of the SF tradition of alternate history, which just means that the way it deals with the alternate history is going to feel a little bit strange if you are used to, say, Harry Turtledove.

This book purports to be a biography written in 2005 (it has a fake copyright notice and everything). X is an avant-garde artist, the toast of the NYC art scene in the 80s. The book is written by her wife, and we eventually unravel both X’s life and the alternate history. (Basically, the New Deal is far more progressive, and in 1945, the south secedes again, behind walls, and turns into a totalitarian state). X comes to New York, becomes famous for… well it’s hard to explain briefly, but basically she secretly lived for a decade under a series of different identities (many involving interacting with famous people), and documenting those experiences as an art installation.

This is a very clever book, winding real people and events in and out of the fictional X and the alternate history. Parts of it are really interesting, especially in a kind of unreliable narrator writing about an unreliable narrator kind of way. Also if you like a lot of fake primary alternate history documents, this has a bunch. I was kind of hoping for a more surprising ending – I think the point is that the narrator chooses not to see the obvious conclusion, but I was wishing for a less obvious conclusion.

Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Recommended If You Like: This is kind of a love/like with Legends & Lattes – if you loved L&L you will probably like B&B. That’s maybe a little unfair?

I don’t have much to say about this one – it’s a prequel to L&L involving a younger Viv helping out with a bookstore while she is on injury recovery. There are some plot shenanigans, but mostly it’s about how nice bookstores are. And hey, I love bookstores more than coffeeshops, so that’s a plus.

The Day Death Stopped by Rebecca Thorne

Elevator Pitch: Really unusual contemporary fantasy

Do The Math: Zatanna - super heroes + wild cards in a weird way?

Recommended If You Like: Going back and forth in time; people with very minor superpowers;

Thorne was a new author for me this year – you’ll see she’s on the list multiple times for books that are utterly unlike each other.

This one is a contemporary fantasy with a bonkers magic system. Basically, some small percentage of the population have magic, but most of them can do like one small thing and it doesn’t change their life much. Except for the Zaro, who is the leader of the witches and who has immense power. Explaining the plot is a little tricky (especially since it’s told shifting back and forth in time), but basically, there’s always supposed to be one Zaro and one heir. Except now there are no Zaros and two heirs. One of whom is a stage magician in Vegas, having renounced the magical world. The other of whom… well, he stops death. Like nothing on earth dies. This turns out to be bad. Shenanigans ensue.

Again, somehow this all works, it’s clever as can be, the back and forth time narration basically works.

Dead Country by Max Gladstone

Elevator Pitch: Back to the Craft universe

Recommended If You Like: Secondary world fantasy with very modern technology, which I do

Not much to say here, this is the first in what I think is now a four book series to close out the Craft universe, it follows Tara Abernathy from previous Craft books (this may not be the best starting point for this series), as she goes back to here hometown and potentially world-shattering events ensue. There’s some of this that is setup for the series, so it’s hard to evaluate on its own, but I love this series and I was glad to be back.

The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei

Elevator Pitch: You can always get me with a mystery on a generational ship

In a good SF mystery – and this is a good SF mystery – the SF environment and the SF science are integral parts of the mystery and the solution.

We are on The Phoenix, a generational ship sending 80 people to start anew on a new planet. All 80 are capable of becoming pregnant, and they are all somewhere in the process of pregnancy or trying to be pregnant timed so there will be children on the new planet. And then an explosion kills the captain and two other crew members.

The book goes back and forth between the ship itself, and the process on Earth by which the 80 were chosen. On the ship, everybody uses augmented reality to see their own preferred surroundings, but our main character’s AR is broken and she needs to share settings with the people she talks to, which is a way for us to learn about other characters and subtly show clues.

The book is also really ambiguous about whether this generational ship is a good thing, or a waste of resources, or the plan of some extremists, or hijackable by extremists, or all of the above.

Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

Elevator Pitch: WWI-era-tech fantasy with some clever magic and sharp banter

Do The Math: The Front Page + Gods + PTSD + Magic Typewriters

Of all the books I picked up based on BookTok recommendations, I think I liked this one the best.

Our main characters are both reporters at a great metropolitan newspaper, rivals for a prime columnist job, against the backdrop of a faraway war against the troops of Dacre, a god of, well, death, I guess. Not the guy you want running your city. They are also communicating via magic typewriter – she slides a note under a door, it gets to him, and vice versa. (He knows he’s writing to her, she doesn’t know she’s writing to him). She’s poor and her brother is a soldier in the war, he’s rich and his family doesn’t much care for his profession and would rather he go into the money-making business.

So you’ve got rivals-to-lovers, a genuinely neat magical tool, and a pretty good background mythology. Solid book. I did read the second one in 2024, and didn’t like it as much, but this one is good.

Paladin’s Faith by T. Kingfisher

Elevator Pitch: I’m not sure I like the word “romantacy”, but this is a romantacy…

This is the fourth book in Kingfisher’s Saints of Steel series, which are all fantasy romances involving paladins who were cast astray when their god died and were taken in by the Order of the White Rat. This is Kingfisher at her muost Bujoldian, and again, all these are fun. There’s a larger story sneaking by in the background of all these romances, though, and eventually the series is going to address it.

Season of Skulls by Charles Stross

Elevator Pitch: Book umpteen in the extended Laundry Universe. Don’t start here…

Okay, when an author writes a book a year and I write these blurbs eight months later, things get a little blurry. I think this one is where Stross goes after Regency Romance and The Prisoner, which are not, in my head, two great tastes that taste great together. But like all the other Laundryverse novels that pull tropes from random combinations of things, Stross makes it work.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t help but hum this title in my head to the Rent soundtrack…

Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

Elevator Pitch: It’s a gothic horror haunted house book

Honestly, I don’t really know what “Gothic Horror” is, except that it often involves southern accents, and a big shambling wreck of a haunted house. It’s not really my favorite genre, but I do like Alix Harrow, and I did like this book. Mostly on the strength of the main characters, the kind of fun sort-of-sentient magical house, and the pretty strong sense of place.

This Gilded Abyss by Rebecca Thorne

Elevator Pitch: What if we’re the baddies? Oh, and we’ve built our entire society on a magic substance that we don’t understand, what could go wrong?

Recommended If You Like: I should note that this gets into horror/thriller territory by the end; it’s not a cozy anything

Thorne again…

This book is one of a couple of books on this list where it slowly dawns on the main character that maybe they are living in a dystopia?

Our main character is a soldier in a country constantly at war with the larger country they broke away from. The war would be long over except our heroes have access to a unique magical substance that can be mixed with just about anything and makes it better. It heals the sick, strengthens materials, anything you want. Anyway, our hero is called to duty by her ex and the sort-of-princess who is investigating some kind of massacre in the underwater city where the magical substance is mined. Which leads to a very tense few days on an enclosed submarine as… well, spoilers, but it winds up being related to the “abyss” part in the title.

There’s a lot to like here – the magic is unique, and the culture surrounding it is also unique and well-drawn. I liked the characters. It stops in the middle rather than having an ending, which is a downside.

What Moves The Dead by T. Kingfisher

Elevator Pitch: It’s the fall of the house of usher, Kingfisher style

Do The Math: Miles Vorkosigan - Spaceships + PTSD + Victorian Era Horror

Recommended If You Like: Mushrooms (well, maybe even if you don’t like mushrooms)

The Award For: 2023 Hugo nominee for Best Novella

This is what, the second, Fall of the House of Usher redo in the last few years? (Mexican Gothic by Silvia Garcia-Moreno, being the other).

They are actually quite different.

I don’t know if that was the intent when she started, but Kingfisher is using this book as the first book in what looks like a series about the main character, Alex Easton. Easton is a soldier from a fictional European country, where “sworn soldiers” have their own gender-neutral pronoun, which seems like a very plausible way to make your 1890s setting feel progressive without making it feel less like the 1890s. (It really works, in part because there are a series of different classifications that have pronouns in that language, not just soldiers).

Anyway, Easton gives off kind of Miles Vorkosigan vibes, if Miles were more world-weary and a little less manic. The whole thing feels like three different books in a blender, but somehow it works. (The second book is pretty good, too, but that’s a 2024 thing).

I guess I’d say I loved these (4.25 out of 5…)

Chaos Terminal by Mur Lafferty

Elevator Pitch: Mystery. Sentient Space Station. Hive mind aliens. Lots of other aliens.

I like a good SF mystery. We’re back on Station Eternity, with Mallory Viridian, kind of detective and person who (spoiler from book one) is kind of bonded to an alien hive mind that lets her solve crimes. As usual, crimes happen around Mallory, in this case also involving her childhood friend and crush. Lafferty does a good job here expanding on the implications of what we learned about Mallory in the first book, and some of those implications are creepy, at least to Mallory. There are a couple of SF mystery series going on that I like, this one definitely included.

Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Elevator Pitch: What if Julia Child was a scientist who also taught rational feminism?

This book caught me off-guard, because I was expecting it to be a romance novel, which it’s not, or at least it’s not after [spoiler] happens.

Instead, it’s the story of Elizabeth Zott, who can’t get the respect she deserves as a scientist in the male-dominated research facility in 196…2? Instead, she somehow becomes the least-likely TV star imaginable, with a cooking show that teaches science and… I wanted to say feminism here, but that’s not quite right, it’s probably more accurate to say that she tries to teach them rational lessons about how things work and it sounds like radical feminism. Turns out there’s an audience hungry for it, enough to keep her on the air. And of course there are shenanigans, but ultimately this is more of a found-family story. Anyway, I really liked it, the voice is great, the characters are great, even the dog is great. I didn’t finish the TV adaptation only because I already knew the story, but it seemed pretty solid, and Brie Larsen was outstanding as the lead.

Liberty’s Daughter by Naomi Kritzer

Elevator Pitch: What if Heinlein was wrong about libertarians?

Do The Math: Farnham’s Freehold + reality + On A Boat

The Award For: 2024 Lodestar Nominee for Best YA Book (Hugos); 2024 Andre Norton Award Nominee (Nebula for YA)

I’m starting to really like Naomi Kritzer.

This is what used to be called a “fix-up” novel – several short stories about the same character glued together into a novel.

In this case, our main character is Beck, the teenaged daughter of a single dad living on a libertarian paradise seastead, made up of a bunch of ships and whatnot lashed together to be outside the laws of any mere government.

Unlike your classic SF libertarian paradise novel, Kritzer is not a libertarian… well, the book is extrapolated on what libertarians have actually done in the real world, so the seastead is basically a dystopian mess. (Unlike some of our other dystopian heroes, Beck pretty much realizes this from the jump). What she doesn’t realize is that her dad… well, that would be a spoiler.

Promises Stronger Than Darkness by Charlie Jane Anders

Elevator Pitch: Book three of the Unbreakable trilogy, see past blog entries

The Award For: 2024 Lodestone Nominee (Hugo for YA)

Book three in this trilogy, and I don’t have a lot new to say about it, it’s great, it comes to a solid conclusion.

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

Elevator Pitch: What if Silicon Valley execs were into some shady stuff?

Doctorow and Charlie Stross are an interesting contrast here… Like 20 years ago, their careers started together and they were the subversive, very online, young rebels – ish. Their careers have diverged a little bit – Stross has become more commercial (not a knock, I love his books), while it’s kind of hard to describe what Doctorow has been doing. This is one of Doctorow’s more mainstream books, a financial thriller about a retired forensic accountant who gets in a little over his head. It’s fun, Doctorow knows the subject like the back of his hand, and the I liked the main character, who is decidedly not the usual thriller lead. It’s a fine line with Doctorow, he’s always trying to change the world (again not a knock), and sometimes that overshadows the book as a story. Here, though, I think he threads the needle pretty well.

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld

Elevator Pitch: Tina Fey falls in for… who’s the real world analogue here… like Justin Timberlake?

Recommended If You Like: Look, it says right on the cover, it’s a romantic comedy.

She’s a writer for a show that is decidedly Not Saturday Night Live. He’s the musical guest one week, one of the hottest musicians in the world. And they hit it off. Except she doesn’t really believe that he could be falling for her, and she, if I’m remembering correctly, self-sabotages. Later, they reconnect via email in summer 2020 (yep)…

There’s a couple of things about this that I liked. Sittenfeld is, I’m going to say, better known for sort of high-concept less genre-y books (to be fair, this is the first book by her that I’ve read), and I think the like, line by line writing is really strong in this one. For one thing, the skits and things in the Not SNL show that are supposed to be funny are actually funny, which is quite an accomplishment.

It’s also interesting to see fiction (and media in general) incorporate COVID. I’ve seen a few books deliberately set themselves in February or March 2020 so that we as the reader know a thing the characters don’t. That’s not what this book does – the first part takes place a few years earlier, the particular setup of COVID isolation is what causes them to reconnect in a series of emails.

Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

Elevator Pitch: SF where Earth has been destroyed and one group wants revenge

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee

This wins some kind of award for “Best Book I almost Threw Across The Room on Page 30” – the main character, Kyr, is completely insufferable at the beginning, just horrible, and I really started to doubt both of our life choices.

The book takes place on a small space station that is an outpost after Earth has been destroyed by aliens. The outpost is quite dystopian, and the main character quite bought into the propaganda (which is what makes her insufferable). Gradually, though, it dawns in Kyr that the place is not quite what it seems, and is not as virtuous as she has been told. Then the book puts her in the larger universe and becomes much weirder and less predicable than you expect.

Overall, it’s great, very well executed in the sense that our initial reaction to Kyr is a necessary part of the story – she has to start in that place for us to appreciate where she ends up, but just know that the first third of the book or so is going to make you mad at her.

Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

Elevator Pitch: What if the evil stepmother was the hero of sleeping beauty?

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee for Best Novella; 2024 Nebula Nominee for Best Novella

Hey, it’s Ursula Vernon (T. Kingfisher) again – I should say that of all the people who got screwed over in the 2023 Hugos mess, Vernon, who won Best Novel, got it as bad as anyone. To win the signature award in your artistic field, only to find out you’ve been the beneficiary of some combination of massive incompetence and massive corruption… that’s one minute of a good time followed by a lifetime of a bad time.

I’m generally pro-revisionist-fairy-tale, and this is a good one involving a very evil sleeping beauty and witch who can turn into a toad.

I loved these… more? (4.5 out of 5)

Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

Elevator Pitch: Transition therapy as supernatural horror

So, there’s two things here… the book and the author.

The book is creepy and disturbing and satisfying. I don’t do horror much, but when I do, I like novels where the mundane part is so much scarier than the supernatural part. Our main character lives in a very sheltered evangelical community in the shadow of what the book jacket describes as the “most effective gay transition camp in the country”. Is it really a spoiler to say that, as evil as that is, it’s the cover for a completely different evil?

Tingle, of course, is best known for his somewhat satirical erotic “tinglers” that he self-publishes for like 0.99 per on Amazon. And for getting nominated for a Hugo by the Sad Puppies who thought his nomination would cheapen the awards, a nasty stunt that backfired when Tingle acted with style and class. This is his first full novel, and it’s remarkable and remarkably confident.

Anyway, this book is creepy, dark, and eventually hopeful, what you want in a horror novel.

Infinity Gate by M. R. Carey

Elevator Pitch: Worlds Will Live, Worlds Will Die – wait, that was the tagline for DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths

Do The Math: Into the Spider Verse - Spiderman + Bunny People + so much other stuff

Yes, I know, you’ve read and seen all kinds of multiverses in fiction. Everything’s a multiverse.

This book is really a multiverse, and takes very seriously the idea that there are an infinite number of universes.

Travel between the universes is relatively easy, and so you have cross-dimensional empires – well, cross-dimensional empire, singular, as well as some mysterious AI opponent. What Carey sets up is in many ways a classic space opera – strange new worlds, other species, but instead of interstellar travel, it’s inter dimensional travel. The result is just a really solid SF epic, that feels new even though it’s using a lot of existing space epic tropes. Very excited for book 2 of what is being billed as a duology.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Elevator Pitch: Holmes and Watson solve crimes on Jupiter. Yes, Jupiter.

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee; 2024 Nebula Nominee

For some reason, this book was announced, with some fanfare, it felt like three years before it was released. (Okay, actually it was eleven months, that’s still kind of a long time).

In the somewhat distant future, humanity has abandoned dying Earth to live in platforms in orbit around Jupiter, covered by semi-permeable smart domes that keep the oxygen in and connected by railcars that go around the planet. It’s never really clear why this was the best option, but it basically works, and it gives Older a world that is perpetually cold and foggy, so it’s kind of reminiscent of Holmes’ London. Our Holmes figure is Mossi, she’s an investigator, the Watson figure is Pleiti, Mossi’s former girlfriend and a scholar of pre-earth ecosystems.

The mystery here is interesting, the environment is cool. Older is particularly interesting imagining what academia and scholarship might look like among scholars trying to recreate old earth ecosystems from historical scraps. And she does a really good job of making the word choice and… diction of the characters seem subtly different in ways that imply things about the Jupiter culture – it’s one of those books where you know that every single word is there for a reason.

Second book is great too, looking forward to a lot of these.

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandransekera

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee; 2024 Nebula Nominee

I think this is our annual winner for debut novel that is like nothing else you’ve ever read. I’m not going to even be able to get a fraction of this in.

Our hero, Fetter, lives in Luriat, a city where closed doors may somehow transmute into portals to.. well, the doors don’t open so nobody is quite sure. Fetter doesn’t have a shadow, because it was taken from him as a baby. He attends a group therapy session for Chosen Ones who have been abandoned by their god. There’s a timeline that doesn’t quite match what Fetter remembers. Oh, Fetter’s father is a god. His mother is a powerful magic user (going off memory here and it’s been a while), and Fetter is in Luriat to avoid both of them.

That kind of scratches the surface of this bold, surreal novel. There’s one very long sequence in the middle that is kind of a slog but most of the bits on either side of that are really great. There are a couple of late twists that click everything into place satisfyingly. A unique and interesting book.

System Collapse by Martha Wells

Elevator Pitch: It’s Murderbot, yay!

The Award For: Wells declined a 2024 Hugo nomination

I don’t really have much to say here, it’s Murderbot and the only quibble I have about is that the end of Network Effects made it seem like everybody was about to get off planet, whereas this book picks up very shortly thereafter, still on the planet, and it took me a bit to orient myself. Otherwise, it’s great.

I do want to talk about the impending Apple TV show, which I really hope they get right. The trick, of course, is figuring out a way to incorporate Murderbot’s voice without doing pure voiceovers. I can think of two workarounds, both of which would be kind of clunky, but I think you could do it, or at least that it’s worth trying. High hopes for this.

Translation State by Ann Leckie

Elevator Pitch: Picking up on one of the weirdest parts of the Raadch books and running with it

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee; 2024 Nebula Nominee

This is kind of an offshoot of the Ancillary Justice series – not a direct sequel, but in the same universe and the characters are vaguely aware of the events of the previous series. This book picks up a corner of the earlier books – the Presger translaters, bred from birth to interact with a powerful alien race. There’s a mystery, there’s high-stakes alien diplomacy. There’s a lot here, and it’s all pretty good.

Witch King by Martha Wells

Elevator Pitch: You know, Martha Wells had like a 25 year career before Murderbot, right…

Recommended If You Like: Weird fantasy magic systems, Dual time frames,

The Award For: 2024 Hugo Nominee; 2024 Nebula Nominee

I saw some comments about this book that were like, “can the author of Murderbot write fantasy?".

I’d say I don’t want to be smug about this, but let’s face it, I’m dying to be smug about this. Please allow me to introduce you to my Martha Wells bookshelf… Almost everything Wells wrote before Murderbot was weird fantasy, it’s almost all great, and there’s like 25 years worth of back catalog just waiting for you. She’s recently released preferred texts of City of Bones, and the first two Ile-Rien books, they are both great places to start.

As for this book, it’s also great, the supernatural elements are unique. It is a little confusing for a bit, as Wells does not exactly slow down for people to catch up, but like a lot of Wells’ books, it’s got great set pieces and lovely characters. I was actually a little worried that she wouldn’t go back to weird fantasy, so this book made me happy.

You Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea / A Pirates Life for Tea by Rebecca Thorne

Elevator Pitch: It’s Legends and Lattes, but with Tea. And an already existing couple

Do The Math: Legends And Lattes - coffee + tea + a committed relationship

Thorne is quite up-front that the genesis of this book was “Legends & Lattes sold a lot of copies”. But this book is really fun on its own, and doesn’t really feel like the same book. Thorne makes the very smart decision to start the book after the main couple has met-cute and they are already together (at some personal risk to both of them, one of them is a palace guard to a queen that doesn’t like losing people, the other is the chief magic user of a different country). It’s a little more action-oriented than L&L, and the banter between the two main characters really carries the book. (The second book takes them out of the tea shop to a more conventional fantasy adventure, it’s also great).

I would like to say here that I think that the “Thin Man” pattern of a committed couple who are in love with each other solving crimes or whatever is way underused in pop culture – there’s a ton of emphasis on the romance plot of characters getting together, but characters who are already together can be fun, too.

Best of the Year (4.75 out of 5, didn’t really have a 5 star this year except maybe one)

The Last Devil To Die by Richard Osman

Do The Math: Miss Marple * 4, I guess

There are things you can do in a running series that are hard to do in a single book. Over the previous three books of the series, Osman has had one of the main four characters dealing with her husbands ongoing dementia, and that struggle continues and intensifies here in ways that are just extremely well-written and memorable. This is on it’s face a kind of cozy mystery series about a group of four retirees that solve crimes, but at least one of the retirees could kill me with her little finger, and they do face dangerous people. This is by far the best of the series, not just because of the main mystery but because all four characters have long-standing character issues to deal with. It’s well done, but you should start with the first book.

Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elevator Pitch: Go into this one cold

The Award For: 2023 Hugo Nominee for Best Novella (for what it’s worth)

I don’t completely trust my reaction to this one, because I got bowled over multiple times by plot twists and, while I think that means this novella is outstanding, it might also mean that I’m easily dazzled.

I don’t want to say too much about it (plot twists), but I do want to say that I haven’t read much Tchaikovsky, and I keep meaning to fix that, because what I have read has been really great.

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

Elevator Pitch Watch a planet get transformed over a mere thousands of years.

The Award For: 2024 Nebula Nominee

This book takes place in stages over the course of thousands of years on a small, insignificant planet that is being terraformed. Characters include a sentient moose, and a sentient flying train. So, there’s a lot going on. We start with Destry, part of a herditary group of people who manage the ongoing terrafomring. While investigating, Destry stumbles across a city of people under a volcano. None of them should be there, they should all have been evacuated as part of an earlier phase of the terraforming. Over a bunch of stories and thousands of years, Newitz covers the struggle to both terraform the planet and ensure that the people living on it are not thrown away by their far-away corporate overlords.

Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman

Do The Math: Hiaasen - Florida + Charles Stross + Paolo Bacigalupi, maybe

Recommended If You Like: Economics and climate change, but, you know, kind of funny…

The distinction I make between, say, a 4.75 star book and a 5 star one is that generally a 4.75 star book is an excellent book, well executed, but I understand why it works. A 5 star book is a magic trick. This one might be a 5 star book.

This is a book about the dystopian climate future, with a lot of economics. And it’s funny. It’s not cheerful, exactly, but it’s funny.

Two people cross the globe looking for the last surviving members of a fish species, the venomous lumpsucker. She is a scientist who thinks the fish might be sentient, and her motives are a little mysterious to start. He’s… well he stands to lose a lot of money if the fish is extinct, owing to some financial shenanigans he’s been trying to pull. He’s also a foodie, who regularly takes pills to deaden his sense of taste so as to manage in a future where so many of the best taste experiences are extinct.

So, it doesn’t shield itself from darkness, but it does let us exist in the absurdity of it.


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Copyright 2024 Noel Rappin

All opinions and thoughts expressed or shared in this article or post are my own and are independent of and should not be attributed to my current employer, Chime Financial, Inc., or its subsidiaries.